Air Safety: Establishing the minimums that work best for you

Posted: Wednesday, August 08, 2001

Safety of flight - that's what this column is all about. All pilots try to do the best and safest job possible. I don't know of one pilot that I can recall that decides, as do the Klingon on Star Trek, "Today is a good day to die." Having said that, statistics show that there are too many poor decisions being made each day by pilots who have excellent training and good intentions. How can we change the statistics?

Most of us mortals have been in a situation where one wrong move in the process would make the difference between clumsy performance and flawless perfection. Usually we are middle of the road and somehow manage to do what is needed at the time, either very well, really poorly or just average. When it comes to flying, the difference between good and poor decision making can literally mean life or death.

Pilots are given federally regulated minimums that apply to most flight situations. For instance in visual flight rules minimums, a pilot must have 3 miles of visibility and 1,000 feet of ceiling before that pilot can fly in instrument conditions. Anything less than those weather minimums and the pilot and the airplane must be qualified and current to fly in instrument conditions. There are some variances in that regulation for commercial operations but I would like to stick with this one aspect for the time being.

Three miles visibility and 1,000 feet to the base of the clouds, from the surface of Mother Earth are a bare minimum, I'd say. A student pilot flying cross-country over a heavily populated area would find that the cloud cover was too close for comfort. In hazy conditions with the visibility at 3 miles, the legal minimum might seem much less, especially if the pilot were flying toward the sun.

A long time ago I decided on my own personal minimums. Believe me they were higher than the federally regulated minimums. I selected a comfort level, which allowed me to make decisions that were safe for the area where I was flying at the time. When I was a student pilot, my flight instructor felt that 5 miles of visibility was the minimum he would let me fly in. I really felt better at 10 miles since the area where I got my training was prone to fog and mist that materialized quickly. As I developed my skills as a pilot I reduced my minimums until I felt they were appropriate for me and then stuck to my decision.

Setting a minimum standard for yourself is one way to assist you in making go-no-go decisions that are both safe and comfortable. I have a friend who has many hours of flying in all kinds of aircraft and who won't fly small aircraft - light twins and single engine aircraft - on long, cross-country flights in solid instrument conditions. He feels comfortable flying through a cloud layer to VFR above. Then descends through a cloud layer if necessary at the destination airport.

A good decision-making process will enhance your comfort level. Deciding upon a minimum set of standards according to your own personal skills and flight time, and then sticking to those minimums, will make the decision-making process easy when the going gets tough.

Safety program managers at local flight standards district offices have a presentation and handout called "Personal Minimum Check List" that you can get to make the development of your list easier and quicker. Once you have decided on the minimums that suit your type of flying, stick to your decisions. Remember, you are the pilot in command and it's your decision that counts toward the safety of the flight.

Patricia Mattison is safety program manager for Juneau Flight Standards

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